Do any of you find this Gospel reading confusing? If you do, you are in good company! It almost seems like Jesus is commending dishonesty and sharp business practice. And yet there’s that last bit about not being able to have two masters, about not serving God and wealth. What are we to make of all this?
Part of the difficulty is that Jesus is using two different forms of speech here. The biggest part of the passage is a parable about a wealthy employer and his manager, his steward. The last part of the passage is some direct teaching, some comments about faithfulness, loyalty, and about money. So you think the passage is going along in one direction, and then Jesus changes is up on you!
So let’s think about the parable for a moment. A wealthy man has a manager who is in charge of his estate – real and financial. The manager has been siphoning off funds, embezzling – and he eventually gets caught. But before he actually gets fired he cuts a deal with some of the master’s debtors, reducing their bills. He does this, of course, to curry favor with these debtors, maybe grease his way into a new job after he is let go. But there is another side to it, as well, and to understand it you need to know a little bit about first century Jewish Law.
The Law (which governed all aspects of life – spiritual and civic) forbade the charging of any interest on loans; it’s what was called usury. Now that didn’t mean it didn’t happen, and one way of hiding those interest charges from the public eye was to ask for payment in grain or olive oil, rather than cash. It was harder to track, and easier to pay because grain and olive oil were plenteous commodities. So most likely the deal the manager struck with the debtors was that he was erasing the interest from their payments. Imagine if you could remove the interest from your mortgage or your credit card bill or your car payment; that would be a huge help!
And when the employer found out what the manager had done, he applauded him; said (in effect) “I’ve got to hand it to you – that was a really shrewd deal.” He said this because the manager was building up good will with the debtors who might be able to help him network to a new job, and doing it at the master’s expense, while simultaneously tying his hands. Because if it all came out, the employer’s own law-breaking, his usury, would be exposed. So here we have embezzlement, cooking the books, and a form of blackmail. And the master praised the steward. That doesn’t mean that Jesus was commending any of what just happened. But what he was commending was the manager’s ability to think on his feet, to be shrewd about his situation and the world around him, quick to size things up and take action. Sometimes the “children of light” don’t cope as well with the crises of the world and do the “children of this age,” Jesus says. To his hearers, this would have meant the Jews who were struggling with Roman occupation and bitter contest for political and military control over their own destiny. He’s telling them that they need to wise up, pay attention to the real situation, and be prepared to act quickly and shrewdly in the face of mounting tension and danger. Of course we know that forty years later, the Roman army razed the city of Jerusalem and the Temple as a final act of power and control over the Jews.
And that’s not all jut ancient history. There’s something in that for us, as well. As Christians we do not serve God and ourselves and the world well if we retreat into a pleasant place of sitting quietly until all the problems and crises of the world go by, trusting that God will work everything out. Of course, God does have his arms around everything, and all shall be well, to quote Julian of Norwich, in the long run. But that run can be very long, with a lot of damage and difficulty in the course of it; and part of our work for the Kingdom of God is to do all we can, with God’s help, in the here and now to be God’s agents of light, peace, justice, goodness, truth, and love – but we have to be wise, have our wits about us, not be caught off-guard by the ways of the world, nor become immune to them.
At the end of the passage Jesus does have some direct things to say about our relationship with money – about honesty and faithfulness in the small things, as well as the big things; and about serving only one master: God or wealth; the old-fashioned word was mammon – the greedy pursuit of wealth at all costs.
Maybe this seems like an awkward time to be hearing and thinking about this passage, on this Sunday when we are set to announce the results of yesterday’s Rummage Sale, but let’s think about the Sale (and everything that leads up to it) for a moment. To start with, Kimberly’s first rule of rummage is: “No one gets hurt.” Our concern is always for everyone’s physical, mental, and spiritual well-being. Then, we know well that the Rummage Sale is an event that provides a welcome and a service to our neighbors and visitors, as well as being an agent of community building for ourselves. Having a party on our front lawn every September to which everyone is invited – whether they buy or not – is part of who we are as God’s people. In fact, yesterday some of our guests were from a group home for developmentally disabled adults here in town. Stopping by the Sale was part of their outing for the day. They seemed to enjoy looking at all the rummage, talking with some parishioners, and I know they enjoyed the coffee at the bake sale table! One of the residents had to be firmly steered away by his supervisor. She said,” He’ll stand here and drink your coffee all day, if you let him!” Finally, the funds that we raise at the Sale are for the mission of the parish – the work God calls us to do and be: as a place of worship, prayer, community, service to others, a place to refuel before you go out into your work week - doing God’s work wherever you are; being a place of fellowship and joy.
This morning we have a baptism: Quinn Beyer will be baptized shortly; and in baptism we are always reminded who is the Master, our Master, the One we follow, and trust, and try to emulate: Jesus. There is a question in the baptismal liturgy, one of the affirmations that Quinn’s parents and godparents will make on her behalf, and which was said either by or for each one of us: “Do you promise to follow and obey [Jesus] as your Lord?” and the answer is “I do.” That means that our ethical choices, our behavior, our work, the way we conduct ourselves in business and friendship, and family, as parents and neighbors all should be a reflection of Jesus – his words, his work, and his life: “Love God; love your neighbor as yourself.” That is what the baptized life is about, following Jesus as Lord and Master; becoming his apprentices; committing ourselves anew each day to serving the Lord as best as we are able, with God’s help.
“Do you promise to follow and obey [Jesus] as your Lord?” and all God’s children say: “I do.” Amen.Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 18, 2016